Emotional Awareness (or Not?)


“Like Water That Flows So Are The Tears Of Our Emotions”

“You’re Emotions Are Important Passengers BUT Never Let Them Drive!”

Dr Pete PhD

After all these years working as a psychologist I am still amazed at how difficult it is for bright and capable people who are under pressure to be able to identify and separate their thoughts and emotions.

Most people may think they are emotionally aware but when they are struggling with challenging waves of life they often lack self-awareness. Have a look at these two cases below:

Case 1: Bob

Bob was referred for anger management. He had lost his temper at work too many times – smashing a phone on to a desk, slamming doors and more recently pushing a colleague into a wall. Bob was sitting in his first session of counseling and I want to share with you a bit of our conversation:

Dr Pete, “So Bob, I need to understand more about the recent confrontation with your co-worker – tell me a bit more about how you were feeling at the time?”

Bob, “I was sick and tired of excuses – they had promised me they would complete the job 2 days earlier and then ignored my follow-up emails – when I found them walking down the corridor at the office I was ready to punch them out cold!!!!

Dr Pete, “Thanks Bob, what you have told me is how you were ‘thinking’ which is really helpful but what I was asking you was how were you ‘feeling’ – can you tell me more about your emotions at the time?”

Bob, “I don’t understand? What do you mean – my emotions – I already told you how I felt – I wanted to punch their lights out!!!”

Case 2: Sharon

Sharon was in therapy for chronic depression and pain management since a motor vehicle accident that had caused severe physical injuries. Sharon was previously very active but had limited mobility due to multiple fractures and also suffered a lot pain during this early stage of recovery. An outtake of one of our early counseling conversations was:

Dr Pete: “Sharon, I am concerned about how upset you have been lately – and whilst this is completely understandable given your injuries –it is not healthy or helpful. In order for me to help I need to learn more about what you are thinking when you get so upset. Take me back to last night when you couldn’t sleep and started to cry – what were you thinking at the time…?”

Sharon: “I just felt completely overwhelmed, sad and anxious…. and then as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling I got more angry and frustrated which only made my pain worse…”

Dr Pete: “Those sound like really strong emotions and that does help me understand why you couldn’t sleep but what I wanted to know was what you were thinking at the time…”

Sharon: “What do you mean? Don’t you get it? I told you what I was thinking – I was in pain, I was upset, I was angry…”

Lack of Emotional Awareness

Bob was so pre-occupied with his thoughts he was unable to identify his emotions despite additional questioning. Sharon was so pre-occupied with her emotions she mistakenly thought they were her thoughts.

For Bob and Sharon, recovery and resiliency will be not be achieved until they overcome some difficulties they have with  understanding their Emotions. Let’s take a look at  (1) why it is important to be self-aware when it comes to our emotions and (2) how to manage our emotions.

Your Emotions – Drivers or Passengers…

Like Water that flows so are the tears of our Emotions. In order to ride the Waves of Life successfully we need to be aware of the power of Emotions but not let them overpower the other Elements of Inner Wellbeing. Emotions are important passengers, but not the driver and we need to express Emotions in healthy ways to avoid accumulating baggage in our lives.

What are Emotions?

An emotion is what psychologists call an “affective state” – a mood or feeling. It is not a thought or Mindset. There are only four basic core emotions:
1. Joy: The peak positive emotional state with a continuum of positive emotional experiences. You might hear it described as Happiness, Satisfaction, Fulfillment, Contentment and Peace.
2. Anger: Also described as Frustration, Dissatisfaction, Disappointment, Hatred and Rage.
3. Fear: Also described as Terror, Panic and Anxiousness.
4. Sadness: Also described as Shame, Hurt and Guilt.

Emotional Awareness: Primary & Secondary Emotions

Primary Emotions (It’s ALL GOOD) 
Primary emotions are in-the-moment emotional responses to a pleasant or unpleasant stimulus. They happen as a direct result of an external cue that affects us emotionally. That is, they occur in close proximity to the event that brought them on. Primary emotions are important because they provide us with information about our current situation and get us ready or motivated to act in some way.

Secondary Emotions (It’s ALL BAD!)
 Secondary emotions are very familiar. We might mistake them for primary emotions if we’re not self-aware. For example, anxiety is often due to fear. We may not be aware that we’re afraid, or even what we are fearing (it could be many things), so it becomes expressed as general anxiety. The thing that helps you identify a secondary emotion is if you can’t alleviate it without digging deeper.
A secondary emotion is what occurs when we don’t recognize, value, listen to, or respond to our primary emotions. If we do not express the primary emotion it doesn’t go away. Secondary emotions stick around for a long time and prevent us from interacting and growing in healthy ways. Examples of unhealthy outcomes from Secondary Emotions include: Worry, Anxiety, Low Self-Esteem, Depression, Jealousy, Hatred, Hostility and Paranoia.

Be Self Aware of Your Emotions

What different types of Emotions have you experienced recently? Have they become the Drivers in your Life or are they the Passengers?

How did you express these Primary Emotions in healthy ways to prevent unhealthy Secondary Emotions and baggage accumulating in your Inner World? What can you do to move to a higher level of Emotional Awareness when facing the challenging Waves of Life? Let’s have a look at the cases of Bob and Sharon a bit further…..

Case 1 Bob

Bob, as you can easily guess, had a complete lack of insight into his emotion of anger. This lack of insight not only meant he couldn’t quickly prevent it getting worse once it started, but also meant he was unable to enact effective emotional management skills such as: problem solving his approach to co-worker communication, and relaxation skills to lower his physical tension. This lack of awareness led to serious baggage in the form of hostility, paranoia and hatred.

Case 2 Sharon

Sharon, whilst clearly expressing a lot of emotions, confused them with her thinking patterns and as such was not fully aware of the differences between her thoughts and emotions. This lack of insight meant she could not leverage thinking strategies to lower her distress.

Flow vs. Flood: Managing Emotions

Managing our emotions effectively is essential for our wellbeing. Not only do we have to have self-awareness to be able to identify our emotions as we experience them so they are not surprised or ‘bottled up’ to create baggage later, we also have to “do” something to process these emotions and lower their intensity to a more healthy level.

What we “do” to manage our emotions aren’t as straightforward as it seems. Most people go into ‘auto-pilot’ when they have strong emotions that can have disastrous consequences if what they “do” in autopilot does not match the situation creating their distress.

Examples of this are: (1) they try to problem solve unsolvable problems only creating more complications and distress. OR (2) they avoid the necessary problem solving required and live in a state wishful thinking or distraction while things get worse. Given these approaches can either be wrong or right depending on the problem we must first ask ourselves an important question about the problems that cause our distressing emotions…to be continued…

Ride the Waves of Life!

Dr Pete

The Stress Surfer

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